The White House Wants to Make Work Cool Again

Broadband's Impact April 1st, 2010

, Expert Opinion, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, April 1, 2010 – Kicking off the first White House Conference on Workplace Flexibility yesterday, the First Lady told a her own story about trying to be a professional and a Mom at the same time.

While on maternity leave with Sasha, she got a call for an interview. “I had to scramble to look for babysitting, and couldn’t find one. So what did I do? I packed up that little infant, and I put her in the stroller, and I brought her with me. . . . it was fortunate for me that . . . she slept through the entire interview. And I was still breastfeeding—if that’s not too much information. (Big chuckles from the audience.) . . . I got the job.”

Michelle Obama went on to say that she’s discovered throughout her career that the more flexibility she gives her staff, the happier and less likely they were to leave.

Introduced as the Teleworker-In-Chief, President Obama described workplace flexibility as essential to the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses. “It affects the strength of our economy—whether we’ll create the workplaces and jobs of the future we need to compete in today’s global economy.”

The call for flexible employment opportunities couldn’t have been more clear.

Telecommuting, though just one strategy in the workplace flexibility arsenal, played a central role in the event. The President spoke of providing opportunities for federal employees to telework on a regular basis. “It’s about attracting and retaining top talent in the federal workforce and empowering them to do their jobs, and judging their success by the results that they get—not by how many meetings they attend, or how much face-time they log, or how many hours are spent on airplanes. It’s about creating a culture where . . . work is what you do, not where you are.”

Noting that two-thirds of American families with kids are headed by two working parents or a single working parent, the President referred to them as juggler families. “. . .every day is a high wire act.  Everything is scheduled right down to the minute.  There’s no room for error.”

“. . . this disconnect between the needs of our families and the demands of our workplace also reflects a broader problem, that today, we as a society still see workplace flexibility policies as a special perk for women rather than a critical part of a workplace that can help all of us. There’s still this perception out there that an employee who needs some time to tend to an aging parent or attend to a parent-teacher’s conference isn’t fully committed to his or her job; or that if you make a workplace more flexible, it necessarily will be less profitable.”

The President urged those organizations already successful at making work flexible to share their stories. ”. . . if you’re doing this not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because you’ve found that what’s good for your workers and is good for your families can be good for your bottom lines and your shareholders as well, then you need to spread the word.”
Dr. Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), announced the release of, Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/03/31/economics-workplace-flexibility). It offers an economic perspective on flexible workplace policies and practices. Job sharing, phased retirement of older workers, flexible hours, and provision of computers to facilitate telecommuting are some of the topics covered in the report.

John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management, spoke about how flex policies improve the government’s ability to hire and retain great people, “I want to make government (jobs) cool again.” He joked that “If flexibility can succeed in the federal government with the unrivaled complexity of our missions—as well as our red tape, quite frankly, it can succeed anywhere.” Berry also announced that 400 of his agency employees would be part of a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) pilot.

ROWE is a flexible work model created by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson while at retailing giant BestBuy. By allowing people to work where and when they want, BestBuy realized increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and increased employee loyalty, they said. Ressler and Thompson have since successfully deployed the model for other private and public employers.

Common themes of the conference included:

  • Increased productivity through flexible work;
  • The ability of flex policies to significantly reduce turnover and absenteeism;
  • The role of flexible work in allowing employees to pursue education;

“The increasing demand for analytical and interactive skills—those largely obtained through post-secondary education— means it is all the more important and common for individuals to pursue additional education while also working. These trends raise the value of flexibility in the workplace as it helps workers balance work and family responsibilities,” stated the new CEA study.

- The need for flex options at all job levels citing the fact that they are least available to those who need them the most.

Of course, without technology, remote work would not be possible. Addressing that and other challenges the President promised “where regulations are in the way, we’ll see what we can do to change them. Where new technology can help, we’ll find a secure, cost-effective way to install it. Where training is needed to help managers and workers embrace this approach, we’ll adopt the best practices from the private sector.” He joked, ”I do not want to see the government close because of snow again.”

Making federal jobs cool again— it’s clear this is not your grandmother’s government.

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